When the deadliest fighting in decades broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh in early April, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and the rest of the world struggled to figure out what was going on. Did Azerbaijan, as it claimed, really seize villages and strategic heights? Were there really hundreds of casualties on each side? How did the fighting start?
A photo released by the de facto Nagorno Karabakh armed forces, which they said is an Azerbaijani ThunderB drone that they shot down.
The recent surge of violence in Nagorno Karabakh has brought attention to Azerbaijan's increased reliance on arms from Israel, including two types of drones not previously known to be in Baku's arsenal.
In one case, Azerbaijan was reported to have used a "Harop" loitering munition, known somewhat fancifully as a "kamikaze drone" because it is itself the bomb. According to Armenian media, on April 4 the Harop hit a bus carrying soldiers to the front and killed five or six of them. It was believed to be the first ever combat use of the system anywhere, reported Jane's Defence Weekly. Azerbaijan sources claim to have used the Harop in other attacks, as well.
In another episode, the armed forces of Nagorno Karabakh released photos of a ThunderB surveillance drone that they claimed to have shot down on April 2.
And in a third episode, Azerbaijani sources claim that their side destroyed "six enemy tanks" using an Israeli-made Spike missiles.
None of these weapons were previously reported to be operated by Azerbaijan. (While it was known that Azerbaijan bought the marine version of the Spike missiles, it's not clear whether it somehow used those for this attack or had secretly also purchased the land forces version, as well.)
In an apparent attempt to assuage Russian concerns, Chinese defense officials have clarified their intentions to create a military bloc along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. They emphasize that it is not to be a "Central Asian NATO" and would "complement" the efforts of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Russia is a member, rather than exclude Moscow.
The initiative in question was announced during a visit by General Fang Fenghui, the chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, during a visit to Kabul last month. Details have been scant, but the initiative was a surprising one given China's traditional deference to Russia in Central Asia security affairs. And Russian media have accused their Western counterparts of deliberately misconstruing the initiative in an effort to sow discord between the two giant neighbors.
"Western media outlets branded the suggestion as a 'Central Asian NATO' claiming to threaten Russia’s influence in the region," wrote the Russian state news agency Sputnik wrote.
Screenshot of Turkmenistan state television showing what appears to be a Chinese HQ-9 air defense system during military exercises.
Turkmenistan showed off its newly acquired Chinese air defense systems during military exercises, confirming for the first time that the country has gotten some significant weaponry from Beijing.
Last year, sketchy media reports suggested that Turkmenistan (and Uzbekistan) had acquired Chinese HQ-9 air defense systems, potentially marking the entrance of China into the Central Asia military market hitherto dominated by Russia.
Now Turkmnenistan has aired footage of what appears to be an HQ-9 in action during its large-scale, ongoing military exercises. The HQ-9 was spotted by the Russian military blog BPMD amid the state TV coverage, visible at about 4:10 in the video below (which is also worth watching for its footage of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at the controls of a number of military vehicles, including a helicopter).
"The Russian government may not be entirely happy, but probably cannot do anything about it," Russian military expert Vasiliy Kashin told The Bug Pit after last year's reports of China's HQ-9 exports to Central Asia. "Central Asian countries started to diversify their military-technical cooperation long ago, and China is one of natural choices."
A screenshot of a video released by the de facto "defense ministry" of Nagorno Karabakh purporting to show the wreckage of an Azerbaijani helicopter shot down by Armenian forces. (source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqatFUgMFxM)
Azerbaijan's military claims to have "liberated" some territory in Nagorno Karabakh after the heaviest fighting in years broke out between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over the disputed territory.
Fighting that broke out overnight April 2 has already resulted in an unprecedented death toll, with Azerbaijan confirming 12 of its soldiers killed and Armenia 18 of its soldiers, as of Saturday night local time. That makes this by far the deadliest outbreak of fighting since the two sides signed a ceasefire in 1994 (the previous worst episode was in 2014 when ten soldiers were killed over a three-day period).
Beyond that, there were claims and counterclaims from the opposing sides of many more enemy soldiers killed and various equipment destroyed. The fog of war, dense in any conflict, is particularly impenetrable in Karabakh, where there are no independent sources of information.
The most dramatic claim was the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense's announcement that it had "liberated" some territory previously held by Armenian forces, naming the areas of Aghdere, Tartar, Aghdam, Khojavend, and Fuzuli.
"In a short period of time, as a result of a rapid counterattack by the Azerbaijani armed forces the front line of the enemy, built up for years, was penetrated in several sections, and several strategic heights and populated areas with strategic significance were cleansed of the enemy," the MoD said.
A security crisis in Central Asia has yet again raised questions about the efficacy of Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to maintain peace in the region.
The dispute between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over an undelimited part of their border was resolved over the weekend without any shots being fired, as both sides pulled back the armored vehicles and troops they had deployed.
But before that happened, Kyrgyzstan called a special session of the CSTO's permanent council in Moscow. (Kyrgyzstan is a member of the organization, while Uzbekistan is not, having dropped out in 2012.) But the response from Moscow was mild: the organization's deputy secretary general was dispatched to Bishkek to monitor the situation.
The CSTO's (and by extension Russia's) relative passivity once again gave ammunition to the critics who say that the organization is focused on phantom threats (like spillover of radical Islam from Afghanistan) or Russia's geopolitical posturing, rather than the real security threats its member states face.
"As tension grows on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, it must be stated that the CSTO is again remaining indifferent to the security problems of its member states," wrote Belarusian analyst Sergey Ostryna. Ostryna noted that while border problems in Central Asia continue to fester, the CSTO has done nothing to address them.
Turkmenistan's armed forces are conducting unprecedented large-scale, unannounced exercises, an indication of the growing importance the country's government is placing on its defense.
The exercises began "in the dead of night" between Friday and Saturday, on a personal command of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to his senior military and defense officials, according to an account in the official state news agency. They continued through Monday, with no indication when they might end.
Turkmenistan's government tends to be secretive about its military (as it is with most everything else) but there has been an unmistakeable emphasis in the past several years placed on acquiring new weaponry and modernizing its armed forces. Meanwhile, all the navies on the Caspian Sea (including Turkmenistan) have been steadily building up their navies, and Turkmenistan's border with Afghanistan has become increasingly unstable, with repeated skirmishes, incursions, and other bouts of instability on that border over the last three or so years.
All branches of Turkmenistan's military, including land, air, and naval forces, special operations and air defense, are involved in the exercise. The drills carried out included practicing air strikes against "enemy armed groups," anti-tank warfare, surveillance by drones, and naval surface-to-surface and surface-to-air fire "against various targets."
General Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, visits a farmer in Georgia whose land was divided by a Russian-built fence on the administrative boundary with South Ossetia. (photo: MoD Georgia)
The top United States military official in Europe has visited Georgia, promising "bigger and better" joint military exercises and telling Georgians that to deter Russian aggression they should build ties with NATO and the U.S.
General Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, visited Georgia March 22-23. Breedlove has become known as one of the most anti-Russia hawks among current U.S. officials, and in Tbilisi he did not disappoint:
As your brave valiant nation has witnessed, Russia continues to extend its coercive and corrosive influence on its periphery. Now it's also trying to reestablish leading and aggressive role in a world stage. Russia automatically seeks to overturn the established rules and principles of the international system, fracture the unity of the free world and to challenge our solidity.
Speculation about security threats in Central Asia has largely focused on the border with Afghanistan and the prospect of Islamist militants infiltrating the former Soviet space. This month, for example, Russia and Tajikistan conducted joint military exercises along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border including over 50,000 troops and Russian strategic bombers.
But those who actually live along that border have a much different perception of what threatens them, worrying much more about isolation and poverty than military incursions, new research has found.
The authors of the report, Strangers Across the Amu River: Community Perceptions Along the Tajik-Afghan Borders, surveyed nine border communities in those two countries. "Border communities often have a different perception of the opportunities and threats posed by borders than do policy makers sitting in distant capitals," the report's authors -- Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, Kosimsho Iskandarov, and Abdul Ahad Mohammadi -- write. "The Tajik and Afghan border districts tend to be economically impoverished, environmentally insecure and isolated from the centre, thereby presenting limited opportunities for economic stability and growth—the primary concern of surveyed communities situated in such areas."
The study also found that residents see both positives and negatives of living on the border:
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon meets General Fang Fenghui, chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, in Dushanbe in February. (photo: president.tj)
China's plans to create a new Central Asian security bloc have raised concerns in Moscow that Russia is declining geopolitically in Central Asia and may now be competing with China.
General Fang Fenghui, the chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, said on a visit to Kabul this month that China was proposing an anti-terror regional alliance consisting of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. Almost no details about the grouping have been announced, but a spokesman for Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani "said the Chinese military chief asked for Afghanistan's participation in the Chinese-proposed anti-terrorism mechanism with Pakistan and Tajikistan," VOA reported. "President Ghani has endorsed the proposal," the spokesman said.
China has been exploring a greater role in Afghan security; during Fang's visit he also promised $70 million in military aid to Afghanistan. But the fact that this proposed alliance would include Tajikistan, and exclude Russia, has raised alarm bells in Moscow. Russia has, until now, seen itself either as the primary security provider in Central Asia or, at times, a partner with China. But that may be changing.